The mist I’d woken to all but disappeared in the afternoon. Now rain clouds loomed on the horizon as we began the ramble to Kits Coty, a Neolithic long barrow where ancients had buried their dead. The long walk past Bluebell Hill meant taking stout footwear and mackintoshes.
My father parked the car near the start of our journey, and we began the long trudge across sodden fields and footpaths, only pausing to negotiate styles and gates. When the sun peeped from behind the clouds we rested for a time. Father had a flask of tea and cake in his rucksack, and this we ate while birds sang, and all manner of butterflies and bees flitted among the hedgerows. We passed into a harvested field and climbed a steep gradient towards the flint remnants of the barrow.
At the brow of the hill I saw a smallholding ahead and realised our path would take us very close by it. The place was deserted, or so it seemed. No movement came from it as we filed past, silencing conversation lest we disturb the owner. Abruptly a fresh wind whipped dust across my vision. The skies darkened simultaneously creating an eerie, eclipsed light. Birdsong all but ceased as it filtered from the clouds. I lifted my gaze and saw a small paddock before us.
And then I saw her.
Alone, her head hung almost to the mud at her feet. There was not a blade of grass in the paddock, nor hay-net at the fence. I could have kicked myself for eating the apple I’d brought. My eyes were drawn to her matted coat and the mud clinging to her mane and fetlocks. It was unmistakably her, my old friend. How, in the few years between my boyhood and adolescence had she come to this? And how I now wished to turn back time, so every effort to rescue her could be made.
I was nine when my form was housed in The Annexe, a rusted Nissen hut from World War II. Split into twin classes, each room had long desks and a crude stove for heat. The toilets were in a separate block in the tarmac playground. We were supposed to study the catechism every afternoon, but I only pretended to do so. Nor did I admit this as a sin during weekly confession. On Wednesdays we were marched to the town for morning mass and I took my place at the side of the church with the choir. The sickly smell of incense made me cough during the hymns, much to the annoyance of the priest.
The usual sermon was repeated: sinners were not accepted into heaven, but after much repentance one might end after death, in purgatory. Here, the possibility existed of eventual promotion on to heaven. But no shame for sins committed would lead ultimately to eternal damnation in the melting fires of hell.
One winter day no teacher for either class turned up. A game of chase began, and desks were scaled as boys flew over them, screaming with glee. I became cornered and took quite a kicking. The teacher finally arrived, his ensuing rage enough to impress even Lucifer. But our punishment was set to be a cold one. As I cleaned the toilets after lessons my breath misted in the basins. This was a penance I later learned had been dished out to wayward enlisted men. A few weeks later before we broke for Easter, unexpectedly the cleaning ceased.
The spring sun now warmed the earth until bright new shoots appeared. Yellow primrose lay in carpets to welcome the daffodils. Their golden bells heralded a new start and perhaps fresh hope for the future. The days stretched out while the heat strengthened and beat down on the corrugated hut. On such a day the class was sent out to study nature. Without supervision most boys began scrapping, while some kicked at plants, their frustration causing destruction. I was not about to be beaten to a pulp, and quietly slipped away. As I escaped all that was audible became a low drone.
I scaled a fence, annoyingly snagging my shorts on the wire. A narrow path then led me to an apple orchard, heaving with pink and white blossom. I knew I should turn back, that much worse than the toilet cleaning awaited me should I be caught. But the adventure enticed me onwards, through the laced trees and up a little incline towards a blanket of wildflowers. Ahead was a fenced meadow, and further off a large house with a glass-room joined onto it. I reached the fence and sat on the soft, lush grass.
In the meadow stood a creature I had only seen pulling a burden. But this animal was quite different, almost ethereal. She was golden, with a silver mane and tail, a white blaze running from her forehead to her muzzle. The same white ran from her hooves to her knees and was duplicated in miniature on her tiny foal. This lighter, softer baby snuggled under her belly to feed. The mare noticed me and tossed her head. Her ears came forward as her dark eyes locked on to mine. She gave a gentle whinny and made towards me, her foal following. I had never seen anything so beautiful or so perfect in every sense.
After that I visited every day. I was sure nobody saw me double back after school to scale the fence. I took the horse apples and carrots from my mother’s larder, and sometimes a Rich Tea biscuit. After only a few days she recognised my steps and would trot to the fence as I approached. Her foal gradually became braver and would put his lips to my face. I learned her name was Tara, that she was owned by the people who lived in the big house. Every minute of every day I longed to be with her.
But inside the classroom the days were again darkened. I kept my head low and scribbled at my studies while the occasional boy was led into the storeroom for a hiding. Even the mid-week walk to church took place in silence, eyes downcast past terraced slums and barefoot toddlers who poked in the gutter with sticks. I did not confess to seeing Tara, for how could my visits be a sin? But had I been caught the crime of trespass would surely have prompted the worst of chastisements: public caning and probable expulsion. Even so my heart skipped a beat as I rushed to be with her at the day’s end. She could not have been a greater contrast from the grime and dust of my lessons, the booming voice of the teacher or the chanted hymns bashed out to a dull rhythm on the piano.
The meadow was full of real song, that of birds and crickets, bees and hoverflies. The greatest thrill was hearing Tara’s whinny as she picked up her pace to meet me at the fence. Then bliss rose into my stomach and warmed my heart. The little foal was growing stronger every day and now cantered up to join his mother. It was the most special of times, and I spent many lazy hours luxuriating in this carefree company. Had I imagined the bond we shared could go on forever, that life could transport me into their world of contentment indefinitely?
Once, I found the colt on the wrong side of the fence. He trotted up and down, trying to get back in through the gate that had been left slightly ajar. The gap was not nearly large enough for Tara, so she gave encouragement to her youngster by muzzling him from her side of the fence. I approached the youngster softly and slipped off my school tie. Gently, ever aware he might bolt and damage himself, I slid the tie around his neck. He struggled and fought to break free, all the while bleating for his parent. I knocked open the gate and led him through. In an instant, I was back outside the fence and mother and son were reunited. Tara then spent a long time thanking me by rubbing her head against mine.
My classmates had left me alone for some weeks, perhaps sensing my new contentment. But one rainy break-time when the teachers stayed in the Annexe things changed. I was in the toilet block washing my hands when two boys entered. They pinned me against the basin and without noise, leant on me as hard as they could. As if by telepathy, more boys entered until the entire space was full of pulsating bodies all driving forward, crushing my chest against the hard edge of the porcelain. ‘Push harder’, they chanted. Unable to breathe I began to see sparkling lights. My body slumped but had nowhere to fall as I was pinned hard by the malevolent throng.
I heard a bell chiming somewhere a long way off. Then what sounded like hooves on the playground as slowly and reluctantly boys peeled away and ran back to class. The teacher found me minutes later. He said if I was so unwell, I had better go home. I managed to get up and stumbled gasping, all the way to Tara’s meadow. My chest had a long red bruise where the basin had cut in and it felt like my ribs had splintered. I sat on the long grass and between coughing, told her everything. Tara leant over the fence and blew gently into my ears, and on the top of my head.
I stood up and now weeping, threw my arms around her neck. She muzzled my face and dropped her head to my chest, again blowing softly over where I supposed my heart must lie. Her warm love engulfed the pain and I slumped to a sitting position once more. Then she laid her heavy head on my spine and I felt a soft heat enter my chest. If it was possible, she healed me of my injuries and fears that afternoon. From that moment our bond was more special than ever.
When the summer term ended it was impossible to visit her from the other side of town. On the very last day of school I took an extra apple and stayed much longer. I sat on the grassy bank and she dropped her head over the fence. I felt her cheek next to mine and reached up to stoke her face. She seemed to be trying to say something, but I was unable to understand her gentle squeaks and sighs. I looked into her eyes for a long time as I caressed her velvet ears. Her foal was off gambolling, chasing butterflies and giving little kicks of delight. I looked back as I left the orchard and saw her gazing after me, her head a little lower than was usual.
The autumn term could not come quickly enough, and I rushed to see her that first day back. But when I arrived at the paddock it was empty. The grass was short as if recently grazed, and although disappointed, I imagined she would probably come back soon. But the next day and the next were the same. That day I heard some boys talking about her. Like a knife the words cut into me. They had been sold, they said. Perhaps destined to be moved from place to place, the colt to Ireland, and Tara to a smallholding, somewhere near Bluebell Hill.
The rain had started, a slashing needle type of rain that stung as it struck my face. Tara had not moved, was standing lifelessly in the filthy sludge of her mud field. I could see no way to help her as the cold drops washed bitter tears away. I would happily have taken the whip for her, would have carried any weight or pulled any burden to see her happy again. My father was now beckoning, urging me to hurry up and join in the last part of our journey. Some way off I saw the small monument of Kits Coty, shrouded in mist. And because of my helpless youth there was nothing I could do to save Tara from this fate.
I raised a shaking hand and bid her farewell, sent a silent prayer across that splattered field, that her suffering might soon be relieved. I realised then that however long I lived, I would never find a soul so kind, or so true. Slowly and with visible effort, she lifted her head and looked at me from across the paddock. My heart leapt as I called out her name.
Tara, I shall never forget you.
I am now an aged man, but you alone have always held the highest place in my heart. I am ill, near to death, the doctors tell me. Now my head hangs as yours did, that day at Kits Coty. My lungs fight for air and an old pain shrouds my heart. I have no sight, but you alone stand bright within my mind. I can hear nothing now but your soft neigh. And somehow, I know we shall meet again, in that place beyond life. Once more your coat will shine gold and your son will trot at your heels. I will call your name and you will rest your head on my shoulder and muzzle my ears. Only we can understand this.
As I slip away, I will know how our souls are linked through all of time and throughout every dimension. And, if I am sure of anything, it is that our ties of love stretch far beyond this earthly world.
I am coming to you Tara, my dearest and most loyal of friends. And very soon we will be together for all of eternity.